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Practice Safe Stress: A Brief Guide to Deal With Midterms

By Mike Norfolk, Features Contributor

Midterms: a chaotic time when comfort and confidence are compromised by classes, creating a conscious carelessness that causes calamity. Basically, being bombarded by books without a break becomes unbearable because boredom bemoans busyness but you believe it will bring benefits. Further, forgetting to forecast frustrates fools and fosters failure to fulfill their field of study, forcing them to find fault for their flaws and feel like frauds. But the search to shrink the severity of students’ shortcomings seems to sideline the situation that — if solved sufficiently — is sure to shape success by subduing the strain and softening the suffering that starts the slippery slope of slacking off. This is how to manage stress.

Midterms bring exams and due dates that are nobody’s first choice to complete. Oftentimes, the work gets deferred to a hypothetical time when we feel eager for the challenge. But when everything is pushed back to the last minute, we become paralyzed by the anxiety of choosing what to do, how to do it and potential negative outcomes (i.e. failing grades). We become stressed because we feel threatened, and although a bad grade can’t physically harm us, our bodies react as if it can.

As humans, we’ve thrived because of our brain’s evolution even beyond that of our physical bodies. We’ve learned to avoid what can kill us and to create technology to work faster. But in today’s society, psychological dangers (like assignment deadlines) are more common than physical dangers, and our brains haven't adapted yet. But over the past 50 years, researchers have learned more about how the brain operates, and this information allows us to consciously make adjustments. Remember, “If you can name it, you can tame it, and if you can track it, you can change it.”

Our brains are reactionary to the information we gather and adjust our bodies to react accordingly. They work like this: your senses tell both your amygdala (“emergency alarm”) and your prefrontal cortex (PFC) (“the decision maker”) there is a threat. The amygdala responds first and prepares your body for action by cutting off unnecessary functions, such as the hippocampus (“the historian”). The amygdala tells the hypothalamus (“button pusher”) to increase your blood sugar and tighten your blood vessels to increase blood pressure. All of this causes you to act on your natural fight, flight or flee response.

But this response isn’t the best course of action that comes from the PFC. Since the PFC needs more information to formulate a plan, it needs the hippocampus to give it information from the past, but since that was shut off by the amygdala it can’t create a plan until it’s turned back on when your body is back to a neutral state. This means the quicker we get our bodies to a neutral state, the quicker we can take action.

When you feel your heart rate increasing, the first thing you should do is slow your breathing. Focusing on your breathing slows you down and brings you back to reality, letting your PFC get to work. Taking slow, rhythmic breaths tells your body it’s out of danger. I use the box breathing method: four second inhale, four second hold, four second exhale, four second hold and repeat. Once you’ve caught your breath, you can start analyzing the threat.

From there, you can create a plan to handle the situation. Physically writing down when my assignments are due and working backwards to find time to complete them helps me with this. For example: today is Wednesday. I have an assignment due on Friday at midnight that requires six hours of work and a paper due on Thursday at one that requires four hours of work. I have three hours of classes on Wednesday, four hours of classes on Thursday and none on Friday. Physically seeing a timeline with ample room to work on the paper, attend all of my classes and do the assignment tells my amygdala that the situation isn’t as threatening as it was made out to be.

Having prioritized how to attack your workload, you can start on the first task. Staying in the present moment and focusing on your process reduces anxiety and helps minimize your stress. Remember to FOCUS: Focus On the Controllable Under Stress. You can always control your breathing and your actions, so worry about those instead of any potential result. Additionally, try using the Pomodoro method. “Forgetting Curve Theory” tells us that people remember most from both the beginning and end of an event. The Pomodoro method creates more beginnings and endings and allows our brain a chance to rest, which increases our energy to focus. To do this, put your phone on silent and focus all of your energy into work for 25 minutes. When time is up, take a five minute break, then repeat. During the work period, whenever a non-urgent thought pops into your head, write it down on a piece of paper to address later and refocus on your task at hand.

If you have the time, try separating from the stressful situation entirely. Getting out of your head and into your body by way of exercise can help you relax. If that’s not your thing, try reading instead. Your brain is a muscle, and reading is its favorite exercise.

Lastly, the best prevention is preparation. Practicing a morning routine that completes a task, increases your heart rate and fuels your body can build positive momentum for your day and give you energy to do your best work. Combine that with a consistent sleep schedule and at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise per day, and your brain will get in better shape and become more capable of minimizing stress.

Still stressed? You can learn more ways to improve your mental health by attending the Counseling Center’s “Stress Less Day” this Wednesday, March 16, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Science Hall! There will be giveaways and activities to help you destress during midterms.

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